Designer and Queer Eye expert Bobby Berk has perhaps the hardest job of the Fab Five. Each episode he’s tasked with redesigning a space in a crazy short timeline of just three days. In Netflix’s new four-part miniseries Queer Eye: We’re in Japan!, the Fab Five travels across the globe to transform the lives of inspiring heroes, while also immersing themselves into Japan’s rich culture.
“Japan was especially interesting because we stand out like a sore thumb, mainly because we’re just so much louder than everyone else is,” says Berk from the Adobe Max creative conference in L.A. “It was definitely interesting being over there, learning about the culture.”
Berk says that the Fab Five (composed of Queer Eye experts Antoni Porowski, Tan France, Karamo Brown, Bobby Berk and Jonathan Van Ness) were initially worried that they would have trouble connecting, due to the language barrier and cultural differences.
But in the first episode, as soon as the boys are introduced to hospice nurse and Audrey Hepburn-super fan Yoko Sakuma, it’s evident that they had certainly no problem creating meaningful relationships with Japan’s heroes.
“When we’re talking to Yoko, who is our first hero in the first episode, I realized that even though we were talking with a translator, we were really connecting on an even deeper level than we’ve had in the past,” Berk recalls.
“I think that was like a really moving moment for me because I realized that, you know, love and acceptance and self care, it translates into any language.”
In Japan, Berk and his design team had to get creative with building the spaces out. Not only were the spaces significantly smaller, but they weren’t allowed to paint or hang anything on the walls. “It wasn’t about just ordering a bunch of furniture and throwing it all in there and making it look pretty. We had to really think about the spaces because most of them were, you know, 150-300 square feet,” he says.
On top of transforming spaces for deserving heroes (their reactions to Berk’s final designs are always priceless and very emotional), Berk runs his own design firm and recently launched his debut furniture collection with A.R.T. Furniture. To balance the various exciting projects Berk’s working on, he says being able to operate everything on his phone and digitally with apps from Adobe helps.
“I get to continue to do those designs and use products like Adobe Acrobat and Sign and Scan to where I can keep working on the projects back at my company, while I’m on set doing Queer Eye,” Berk says.
Check out my full conversation with Berk, during which we talk more in-depth about his time in Japan with the Fab Five, the inspiration behind Berk’s new furniture collection and his designer beginnings.
Monica Mercuri: Thank you so much for talking with me today. I’m sure you have a busy schedule! I am a big fan of you and Queer Eye and I’m such an emotional wreck every time I watch the show. It’s amazing what you guys do and I feel like I also watch the show when I need it the most.
Bobby Berk: Most reviews have been saying if Queer Eye normally makes you cry, Japan will make you wail.
I will be sure to emotionally prepare myself! In light of Queer Eye: Japan, could you talk about what it was like visiting Japan with the Fab Five?
Oh, I mean it’s always fun traveling anywhere with the boys. Japan was especially interesting because we stand out like a sore thumb, mainly because we’re just so much louder than everyone else is. So, it was definitely interesting being over there learning about the culture. I’ve spent a lot of time in Japan, it’s one of my favorite countries, so a lot of it wasn’t much of a surprise to me, but watching the other boys learn about Tokyo and Japan was really nice.
Is there a particular episode or moment that sticks out to you while you were in Japan?
You know it’s hard to pick a favorite, but I definitely know there was a moment where—we were kind of worried going over there that we wouldn’t be able to connect just due to the cultural differences and honestly the language barrier. But, I think the first moments when we’re talking to Yoko, who is our first hero in the first episode, I realized that even though we were talking with a translator, we were really connecting on an even deeper level then we’ve had in the past. I think that was like a really moving moment for me because I realized that, you know, love and acceptance and self care, it translates into any language.
Could you take me through your process redesigning a space for the show? I’m sure you have a quick turnaround time—was that at all different while you were shooting in Japan?
It was very different in Japan just because the spaces were smaller. It wasn’t about just ordering a bunch of furniture and throwing it all in there and making it look pretty. We had to really think about the spaces because most of them were, you know, 150-300 square feet. So we had to get creative with building the spaces out because we couldn’t paint the walls, we couldn’t hang anything on the walls. So we had to build a lot of like loft furniture and like elevated bedrooms and drawers inside of stairs, and so we had to get very creative with how the space functioned and not just about making it pretty.
What is the biggest difference between designing homes on the show verses individual client projects for your own design firm?
I mean, time! You know, with projects for my company I get to take time and put them together and really plan out the designs. On Queer Eye, you know, I have to throw it all together very quickly. But you know that’s what’s great about still having my company, is that I get to continue to do those designs and use products like Adobe Acrobat and Sign and Scan to where I can keep working on the projects back at my company, while I’m on set doing Queer Eye.
How do you balance all of the business ventures that you’re working on, you know, with your design firm, creating your new furniture line and also being an expert on the show?
I don’t know (laughs). I mean I balance it all I think because it all kind of relates to each other, you know, everything I do is about design. And so I’m able to kill a lot of birds with one stone. I’m also able to balance it by being able to operate everything from my phone and utilizing great apps from Adobe. Yeah, I think that’s how I can balance it all. Being able to work no matter where I’m at.
And congratulations on the release of your debut furniture collection!
Where did you draw inspiration from for the line?
You know, the line is really just pieces that I would want in my own home. So I was inspired by designing the things and the look that I’m never really able to get for myself. Because I feel that when you design something that you’re really passionate about and you really love, that shines through in the design. So yeah, minimal but still rich textures and woods and modern, but not cold, you know? So modern, but warm. I’m a Virgo, I like a lot of straight clean lines I don’t like a lot of messy cushions.
Funny that you say that, all my friends are Virgos!
Ah nice, you’ve got great friends then!
When did you first realize that you wanted to do this for a living?
I don’t know, growing up I loved design and I was into it, but I didn’t really think of it as a career path. And it wasn’t until I kind of fell into owning my own furniture company. You know, I started online, and that did well so I opened up stores. I started working with customers, helping them design their homes and their spaces, and I realized that was the part of the business I was most passionate about. So that was the direction I continued to take my company, was more in the design direction instead of the retail direction. I don’t think there was really one defining moment, it’s been kind of a collection of moments throughout my life.
Is there anything that you would like to share with Forbes.com readers about what you’re working on in the future?
We’re definitely adding new collections to the furniture line. Today, I’m at the Adobe Max conference. It’s kind of cool being here surrounded with like 15,000 other creative people that kind of have the same DNA running through them that I do. The energy in the room is great, because everybody is here because they love design, they’re creative people. It’s not very often that you get to be around so many people that are really into exactly what you’re into, so it’s very cool being here. If you’re creative in the field, it’s something that I highly recommend coming to.